Seventeen years ago, on an otherwise unremarkable summer afternoon, Hollywood filmmaker Bob Shaye changed my life. Shaye, a Detroit native and supporter of my foray into poetry activism with Detroit youth, sent me a letter suggesting that going citywide with my work would be a "supremely valuable cultural goal.'' Since he was kind and insistent enough to put his vision in writing, I couldn't help wondering: What if?
From that question, an amazing answer was born: InsideOut Literary Arts Project, today Detroit's largest literary arts nonprofit. I presented Mr. Shaye's Four Friends Foundation with a proposal, which was kindly accepted. Soon thereafter, students in classrooms in five schools chose "InsideOut" from a list of possible names that we, the adults who got the project going, had set our minds to.
I wish I had that original list now, a missing piece of the archive of this experiment based on the notion that poetry could have a remarkable impact on young people -- on their souls, their skills, their sense of themselves. It all started on wings of whimsy and imagination -- a general sense of gee -- what if? -- sparked by the energy of Detroit's youth and lit by the generosity of a benefactor who saw in the work I was doing in my classroom a promise, a spark, something small that had the potential to grow.
Duly named and armed with a generous seed grant, InsideOut began in 1995 in five Detroit high schools. We have grown steadily, one hand over another on this ladder we are climbing, always sensing how easy it would be to slip, slide off, but adding schools, imagining new programs, deepening relationships with principals and teachers, evaluating the work (scientifically!) to show that we are not "just another feel good program," winning awards (including one from the White House!) recruiting amazing poets to bring the joy and excitement of writing to kids and, finally -- through publications and performances -- bringing the truths of our youth out into the world. I can still see Monique, a 10th grader at the time, raising her hand after her class had voted to say, "This means we are bringing what is inside of us out into the world through our writing."
We have become understandably attached to our name, so when I got a call from Larry Baranski of the DIA -- who rather gingerly asked if we would er, mind, be okay with, or indeed consider perhaps partnering with the museum since the museum was, in fact, initiating their own "Inside Out" -- I felt a certain twinge.
We are now in 35 K-12 schools, with combined service since 1995 to over 40,000 youth, but we are still the little guys. Who are we to complain to one of the grandest cultural institutions in our city -- let alone our country. But happily I accepted the thievery and was glad to share -- glad to be our beloved museum's "Inside Out Echo Effect."
That echo effect was in effect on October 15, 2011 -- a chilly day alongside the Detroit River where a reproduction of the Detroit Institute of Arts Savoy Ballroom is on display. Reginald Marsh's masterwork is a gem of the Harlem Renaissance, a painting chock full of dancers whose reds and blues twirl and writhe; one can almost hear the music, tap a foot to the beat and feel the heat of those exultant bodies. The installation is part of the DIA's "Inside Out" that places museum artwork out in public places. October 15 was the day for the museum's Detroit art tourism bike ride and InsideOut (our InsideOut -- one word, no space) had been invited to 'amplify' the art with poetry.
At InsideOut's showcase on May 26, at the Detroit Film Theatre, a venue made available thanks to our new partnership with the museum, students from the Detroit International Academy for Young Women presented "The Lady Testifies About Her Family," -- a show-stopping choreopoem full of family wisdom, teenage sassiness and Ntozake Shange-style panache. So these were the students I turned to. For the art/bike ride, their writer-in-residence Sherina Sharpe organized her "Ladies" to create a poetry tableau that to deliver in front of the outdoor Savoy Ballroom. And stand and deliver they did, sizzling that autumn air with Savoy-jazzy performances that left group after group of cyclists hungering for more.
Which brings me to Shysuaune (pronounced Shy-juan) whose poem inspired by Savoy Ballroom gave the 1995 DIA Student Writing About Art publication its title -- "Blues Remedy." Along with Monique, Shysuaune was in InsideOut's pilot class. Much of what I learned about teaching poetry came through students like him, and seeing how they could take fire and grow was much of the inspiration for InsideOut. Shysuaune took many awards for writing, and he was not afraid to confront difficult topics such as family drug dealing, as in his poem "Baby Black Boy Blues" that was published in You Hear Me? Poems and Writings by Teenage Boys from Candlewick Press.
Shysuaune was one of two editorial consultants retained by the book's editor Betsy Franco who could not say enough about his intellect and sensitivity. He was also one of my student editors and always made sure to have his locker next to my classroom door, sometimes, it seemed for protection. It is one of the honors of my teaching career that Shysuaune urged his best friend Tommy to transfer to our school so that he too could work with me on poetry.
Shysuaune died, all too young, in 2002, so it was a special gift to me to provide student poetry in response to this, of all pieces of art. Along with the Ladies' performance, the DIA's bike/art tourists were treated to "Blues Remedy" printed on a lovely broadside and given a choreo-rendition by the Ladies. So here the echo effect moves back in time and then resonates forward. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to keep Shysuaune's beautiful poem, and his beautiful spirit, alive, here as a token of the thousands of lives and words of the young people we celebrate and serve.
to the blues
in the dark riches of
Marvin Gaye's voice
with the incoming rhythms
we smell the inner city
in a ring of cigar smoke
hear it in a bell
the gray sign
of a time
when worried black clouds
got lost in Motown
in the embrace of a slow dance.
Communication and Media Arts High School
from Blues Remedy: Student Writings about Art,
Detroit Institute of Arts, 1996